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Abstract: Unsustainability is persistent despite growing awareness that the industrial way of life, its modes of production and consumption need to be transformed. In academic sustainability contexts, however, attention is rarely paid to how industrial societies basically operate and how our everyday life is implicated beyond the usual suspect: consumerism. I argue that it is work, as central social relation of modern societies and in its structural link to production and consumption, that is inherently unsustainable and accordingly a key issue for an effective and desirable socio-ecological transformation.
To analyse the connections between modern-day work and unsustainability, to explore potential alternatives, and to understand the politics of overcoming present unsustainable trajectories with respect to work, I ask the following consecutive research questions: In which ways is work socially and ecologically unsustainable?, How can work be conceptualised and organised differently?, and How is a transformation to postwork alternatives made possible or impeded? Within the conceptual framework of degrowth, I answer these questions through a qualitative, theoretical literature analysis.
I find that abstract work as employment in labour markets and the social order it implies is, historically seen, a modern invention based on specific morals and interests. Present societal concerns arise with regard to precarity, health, care, and economic growth. Ecological concerns are found regarding four distinct factors: scale, time, income, and work-induced indirect effects. Alternatives are traced by discussing ʻgreen jobsʼ as logically opposed to the critique and refusal of work, and by outlining a different ʻpostworkʼ organisation and conception of productive activity, consistent with socioecological sustainability objectives. Finally I debate postwork politics, focussing on conditions of and constraints to change: public debate, an ecological basic income, and postwork infrastructure, versus the norms of a work-centred culture and the resistance of central actors, including trade unions.
I conclude that the indispensable profound societal change towards sustainability cannot succeed without a transformation of work and work society. Sustainable postwork alternatives exist, are meaningful and can be genuinely desirable, but are clearly contested and presently unlikely. Given more political momentum and support, they may come with generational change. However, general sustainability constraints are closely intertwined; crucial is therefore a common desire for change and collective self-limitation.
My contribution to sustainability science consists in introducing the discussion of work into the field where it has so far been neglected, and in demonstrating how sustainability science would gain from opening up to approaches critical of growth and development, thus repoliticising and reinvigorating sustainability.